Brush piles

Over two weekends I have burned two piles of brush, twigs and branches, and perhaps some whole small trees that have accumulated over two decades. These were woody prunings and shrubs that died, and branches large and small that have fallen from the tulip poplars and maples that border the garden. Anyone who thinks that an experienced gardener never loses a plant should have seen this pile.

I was concerned that the fire be contained so that neighboring trees and shrubs were not singed, and that the fire not get out of hand to burn down the neighborhood. I’m happy to report that the neighborhood is safe, though some overhanging branches were slightly blackened. 

Certainly, there are more responsible ways to be rid of such debris, but I haven’t the energy or inclination to compost on such a grand scale. The small compost pile behind the garden shed is reserved for leafy prunings and tropicals that are tossed out at the season’s end, and little compost is ever harvested, but the waste is greatly reduced in bulk so that it isn’t shipped off to the local landfill.White striped bamboo

Earlier in the year I removed two large hornbeams and a small forest of bamboo. There were several truck loads of debris to be rid of, so I rented a large chipper to grind the bamboo and tree branches into mulch. It would have made good sense to chip the brush at the same time, but I was too worn out by the bamboo’s removal, so the brush piles were left behind. The wood chips are spread out in the garden as mulch, and never mind the tales about fresh wood chips being detrimental, robbing nitrogen from the soil. In fact, nitrogen is consumed in the process of decay, but the amount is negligible, and I’ve never had any reason to even think of adding back a nitrogen fertilizer to balance it.Oriental bittersweet

In fact, at the time there was only one large pile. The other was created by the recent removal of a thicket of mulberries and invasive vines that threatened to leap over into the garden. Once the mulberries and vines had been toppled and cut into somewhat manageable pieces, the surrounding area required immediate attention since it is plainly visible from the street. The tangle of vines and branches was impractical to haul to add to the other debris pile (though that was only twenty feet away), so it was clear that burning it in place was the only practical alternative.

The green wood and vines burned slowly, but the older, larger pile burned in half the time, so now all that’s left are a few piles of ash. There’s a void where the brambles and mulberries were removed, so in the spring I’ll spread the ashes and plant the area. I’m not too concerned at this point  about what’s going to go back in.

I haven’t started browsing bulb and perennial catalogs yet, but once plants begin arriving in the garden centers there’s little doubt that I’ll quickly get the urge. For now, chopping out the mulberries and burning the piles is enough to satisfy me that the winter hasn’t been totally wasted. There’s plenty of work to be done to prepare the garden for spring, but today I’m feeling lazy, and I’ll probably feel the same tomorrow. Eventually, I suppose, the garden will be readied for spring, but not this week, and probably not next.

The next Ice Age

Listening to shivering co-workers, the recent period of cold must be the second coming of the Ice Age. Instead, these temperatures are quite ordinary for January, and not extreme at all. I’ll exercise restraint and not tell the long and probably boring stories of extreme temperatures from thirty years ago, but it must be noted that the recent cold is not unusual at all. If all goes according to normal there should be several days this winter still to come when overnight temperatures drop another eight or ten degrees colder. And, that will still qualify this winter as warmer than average, even the recent much warmer than normal average.Winter daphne in mid January

How does the recent cold effect the garden? Not much, unless you have left tropical elephant ears and bananas out for the winter. I’ve left a few of each outdoors, but only because I haven’t enough space to move everything inside any longer. The number of potted tropicals I bring indoors for the winter, and then move back outdoors in May has gotten to be quite a chore, so each year a few are left behind to parish. Except, with our recent warm winters, sometimes they don’t die. The past few years a few elephant ears in pots or in the ground have been left behind to die, but they’ve come back in late spring.Winter jasmine in early March

Much further to the south sudden spells of cold can be a problem if plants are not fully dormant, but in the mid-Atlantic region temperatures in late autumn are sufficiently cold to assure dormancy for most plants. A few plants show signs of life in January, winter flowering shrubs and bulbs, and it’s not unusual to see daffodil foliage breaking ground early. But, these are well adapted to the cold, so there’s little danger to them from extended periods of cold.Daffodil foliage in January

I was in downtown Baltimore a few weeks ago (during a period of mild temperatures), and noticed that Knockout roses planted along the streets were not totally dormant, but these typically hang on late into the autumn, so I don’t expect they’ll be shocked by temperatures colder than what we’ve had so far. A bit further outside town, plants are dormant, except for ones that are supposed to stir to life in mid winter. Unquestionably, some are stirring a bit earlier than in a colder winter, but witch hazels, winter jasmines, and hellebores are well suited to flowering in the cold, so there’s not a thing to be concerned about.Vernal witch hazel in late January

Not so cold for hellebores

Never mind the cold. Despite the recent stretch of cold temperatures in late January, the garden’s hellbores (Helleborus orientalis. H. niger, and hybrids) continue to bloom, and flowers that were opened partially were unscathed by the cold. On the other hand, the flowers of hybrid camellias turned to brown mush on the first night of temperatures in the low teens. Hellebore in mid January

With cold weather the foliage of hellebores has begun to look a bit haggard, and perhaps this will be the motivation I need to cut it back to the ground. In the past this was an annual ritual, but with warm winters the foliage is passable enough to forego this chore. Now, with two (and maybe three) year old foliage, the flowers are barely evident. If the ragged foliage is removed it is best to do it before late February when the new foliage starts to grow and is more easily injured than if the pruning is accomplished in January.

The best time to cut the foliage is a month ago, before the flower buds have swollen, and certainly before the flowers have gotten in the way. But, at the time I had no plans to cut them back, so perhaps this is a good project for tomorrow, when temperatures are above freezing and the leaves can be bunched and cut while avoiding the flowers and new growth (and frostbite). Hellebore in mid January

It seems a shame to cut back perfectly acceptable foliage that hardly shows signs of winter damage, but the leathery leaves are likely to deteriorate further, and the reward is that the flowers stand out to be enjoyed so much more conveniently. The flowers often persist through much of March, and then within several weeks the foliage is back, looking as full as ever, but much fresher than the leaves that were pruned away.

Winter flowers, and more to come

This week, another warmer than usual winter is disguised by a heavy blanket of frost. On a cold, blustery January afternoon the garden’s flowers don’t make the shivering temperatures feel any warmer, but they promise that spring is nearer by the day. On average, the coldest temperatures of the winter are the second week of January, so despite the current freeze there should be a slight upswing each week until spring arrives.Vernal witch hazel in January

The flowers of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia and winter blooming hybrid camellias are on their way out, but the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) is flowering today and its peak bloom is in late January. There are hints that the larger, brighter blooms of the hybrid witch hazels are beginning to open (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, below), but it will be a few weeks until they are fully in flower. The ribbon-like flowers of the vernal witch hazel are smaller, and the duller color doesn’t pop out, even against the gray winter sky. Still, they are potently fragrant on a still winter afternoon.Diane witch hazel in January

Witch hazels in general are easy to grow, and suffer no pest or disease problems to bother about as long as they aren’t planted in an excessively damp spot. All four of the witch hazels in my garden are in damper than average soil, and the hybrid ‘Arnold Promise’ (the photo in the header) is in a spot that’s wetter than I’d recommend, but it hasn’t had a problem at all. They are a little slow, though not terribly so, but the result is that they are a little more expensive to purchase than most other shrubs. The flowers of vernal witch hazel don’t make as big a show as the hybrids, but it flowers a month earlier when there are fewer other blooms around.

The paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) is showing the first bit of color, though barely so. With each week starting in late January the yellow tips of the tubular flowers will begin to open until they are fully in bloom at the end of February. The flowers will often persist into late March. I’ve read that the blooms are fragrant, but the scent is faint enough that I can’t smell it at all. But, the flowers are large, and plentiful, and these have become my favorite late winter bloomer.Edgeworthia in January

When I first planted edgeworthia it was as a trial since I had been warned that it was only marginally cold hardy. But, it has weathered recent winters without a hitch, with only minor damage to a few flower buds when temperatures dropped a degree or two below zero a few years ago. It has grown like a weed in a range of dry and damp soil conditions, but in mostly full sun. Three small shrubs have each grown wider (to almost ten feet) and a bit taller than references claim to be their mature size. On each shrub there are hundreds of flower buds that first appear in mid autumn while it is fully leafed. The buds slowly increase in size, and by December they stand out against the bare stems.

Winter daphne in mid January

Variegated Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’, above) exhibits handsome glossy foliage through the winter, with pink flower buds that tease that they will open in mid January. But, it is not until late February, or even the first of March before the fragrant flowers open. Daphnes are reported to be particular about planting and transplanting, but I’ve had no problems with winter daphne or the spring flowering ‘Carole Mackie’. They suffer from no disease or insect problems that I’ve seen, but I suppose there’s something to the warnings so I’d recommend particular care in siting and planting (though I paid no attention to either).

Hasty conclusions

I hesitate to make pronouncements of any but the most obvious sorts. Too frequently hasty conclusions are quickly disproved,  and unquestioned observations are contradicted.

Along the driveway there are a handful of hybrid camellias, two of one cultivar, and three of the other, ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’, though I don’t recall which is which until they are flowering. I’m unable to figure which cultivar is the three or the two because the identical varieties do not flower concurrently and their foliage is too similar.Winter's Star camellia in late October

The furthest plants are only a dozen feet apart, but they will often flower two months apart. The simplest explanation for the disparate flowering period is the slight difference in sun exposure, with one spot open to the setting western sun while the other is more shaded by deciduous trees.

The three camellias facing the sunset through early autumn (when the sun’s path shifts noticeably southward) begin flowering in November, while the two in the shade of the Golden Rain tree flower sporadically through December and January. There are often numerous fat buds that do not open at all, apparently victim to repeated freezing temperatures (though occasionally there will be a few scattered blooms in March).Winter's Interlude camellia in late October

For years I accepted this pattern, and explained that the varying bloom times were the result of the differing sun exposures. But, earlier this year two tall (forty feet tall) hornbeams immediately beside the Golden Rain were removed, so that now the two camellias that were more shaded are exposed to considerably more sun through all the seasons. Contrary to my reasoning, the camellias continue to flower two months later, and only now, in late January are the first flowers of ‘Winter’s Star’ opening, with dozens of buds unopened. Three feet away, the buds of ‘Winter’s Interlude’ are swelling, but there are no flowers yet.

The three camellias nine and twelve feet away have no buds at all. These flowered completely in November, the best period of blooms I can recall. For several weeks there were a handful of flowers at their peak, and others that were just past or nearly at their peak. In January the flowers are damaged by frost and freeze so that each is edged in brown, so it would be helpful to gain some insight to locate camellias where they will flower in November rather than January. Camellia bloom damaged by cold

The point here is that I have presumed that one set of camellias were delayed in bloom due only to the lack of exposure to sun when apparently the reasons are much more complex. I’ve little doubt that the amount of sunlight plays a part, but how much, I haven’t a clue.

And, it is not only camellias that betray my common sense notion that more sun will spur earlier winter flowering. Around the garden, the early winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) is almost at its peak bloom in more shaded areas, while in nearly full sun the flowers have faded considerably. The ones growing with more sun flowered earlier, and faded first. To my thinking, this makes perfect sense, but the late winter blooming leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) defies this logic.Winter Sun mahonia in January

There are five or six leatherleaf mahonias growing in the garden, several that were planted and other seedlings that were spread by birds who consumed the grape-like fruits. In late January, the ones in the most sun have barely developed flower buds while the few in deepest shade have full panicles of buds and already show some color. The mahonias in nearly full sun will flower weeks after the shaded plants, so whatever the influences it’s clear that I don’t understand them.Leatherleaf mahonia

So, enough of of conclusions. It is abundantly clear, I’m certain, that I haven’t a sufficiently analytical mind to figure such matters, so I’ll not pretend that I know more than I do. There is no harm in any of this, I suppose, but the lesson is perhaps that simple minds are intended to enjoy rather than analyze. If I overstep to declare anything more than my casual observations you are best served by ignoring me.

Neglected chores …. again

Inevitably, one garden chore or another is neglected. Not only in January, when I make an effort to do as little as possible, but through the year. The resulting calamity is predictable, but rarely are the consequences so dire as to cause any more than a few hours additional labor.

In recent days it’s become apparent that I forgot to spray the year end application of deer repellent that protects evergreens that are regularly damaged in the winter months. How apparent? Several azaleas have no leaves, and a few aucubas have leaves that have been nibbled.Autumn Carnation Encore azalea in October

I’m not too disturbed by either problem. The azaleas are evergreen, but they lose most leaves late in the autumn, so there weren’t many leaves anyway. I expect they’ll grow back quickly in the spring, but along with the foliage it’s likely that flower buds at the branch tips have also been injured, so there will be fewer blooms. Still, a small price to pay for my neglect.

One aucuba has been stripped bare of leaves, and another larger shrub has a handful of damaged leaves. The one with no leaves is the same one that was eaten a year ago when I somehow skipped over it when spraying other evergreens. Most of the leaves grew back last spring, though the shrub was much skimpier than the other aucubas.Gold Dust aucuba in early December

Aucubas grow with sturdy, upright stems, but this plant is crooked to the side, as if it was crushed by snow. I don’t think this is the case. Instead, I figure it was stomped on by deer. Years ago loose cows from a neighboring farm meandered through the garden, leaving a trail of destruction. This is only one shrub, but I don’t think deer are any more cognizant of avoiding  small obstacles (plants) than cows.

In past years, before I started to spray a repellent, I’d see some damage to camellias and arborvitaes, and occasionally a nibbled leaf or two on hollies. I haven’t seen any other signs of injury from deer this winter, and of course the wise course would be to spray now to avoid further problems. But, I find it difficult to get motivated in January, and particularly when the consequences of my inaction seem so minor.

Something’s missing

The garden escaped the late October hurricane without substantial damage, but storms earlier in summer blew trees over and broke some nearly in half, so there are gaps to be filled and considerable rough edges to smooth. I’ve resisted the urge to replant for the most part. For once I’ll take a bit of time to think about what I should plant. A novel approach, certainly.Sourwood

To add to the misery, an area of running bamboo was removed in late summer. It has been partially replanted, but I hesitate to plant much until I see how many shoots pop up in the spring. I feel rather certain that plenty of bamboo will come back, and getting rid of it would be complicated by too many new plants in the way. In addition to the bamboo removal, two large hornbeams died after too many years of drought and perhaps with too much competition for moisture from the bamboo. What was once a jungle of bamboo that merged into the shade of the hornbeams has changed to lightly filtered sun from one remaining hornbeam, and neighboring sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum, above) and goldenrain trees. Once spring growth has started I’ll move quickly to add some new favorites to this area (if the bamboo regrowth hasn’t created too much of a headache). Franklinia blooming in late August

Several large camellias were planted in the shaded area, and with more sunlight they flowered several weeks earlier this autumn. There have been no obvious negative effects from increased sunlight, and I suspect that the camellias and azaleas (both evergreen and deciduous) in this area will prefer the diminished shade. I’ve planted a few ferns that will be ideal in this half sunny spot, a few shrubs, and a clump of Gordlinia (Gordlinia grandiflora, an intergeneric hybrid between Franklinia and Gordonia, with flowers similar to the Franklinia, above), so there’s a start on the spring planting, but there’s plenty of space still to cover. Calyces of Seven Son Tree in mid October

The main tragedy from the summer derecho was a Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconiodes, above) that snapped off  at ground level. I half expected that it would sprout some growth from the roots, but it didn’t, so the prized tree has been lost. A large hole was left in the planting between the summer house and the swimming pond, and I agonized for a while before settling on planting a red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea, below). I’m not certain that I’ll fall for the horsechestnut like I did for the Seven Son, and some day it might be a bit of a concern because it grows larger so it might eventually overgrow the spot. But, it’s a lovely tree, and for the short term it was as large and full a tree as I could afford.Red horsechestnut

There’s still open space surrounding the horsechestnut that was filled by the wide spreading Seven Son tree, so I’ll fill this with some tall growing perennials until the day the new tree grows enough to crowd them out. I don’t know what yet I’ll plant, but I’m sure it will come to me soon enough, and by summer I expect it will be as overgrown as the surrounding garden.Edgeworthia in early April

A third area opened up with the latest disaster to strike, not storm related this time, but an invasion by a nasty Oriental bittersweet vine that covered a thicket of mulberries at the edge of the garden and threatened to leap over to ‘Elizabeth’ and bigleaf magnolias that are planted nearby. To remove the bittersweet, the mulberries were cut down, and then the tangle of brush and brambles was cleared  so that now there’s an unacceptably large open area. To my wife’s thinking there’s no such a thing, but I must have every space filled or I quickly become ill. It has taken every ounce of my limited amount of patience to hold off on planting everything at once, but I’ve planted only a few native viburnums (Viburnum dentatum) and edgeworthias (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above) so far, and the rest I’ll work on early in the spring.

I suppose that planting these areas could seem like a lot to manage at once, but I’m delighted to have the open areas to plant. For too long I’ve been challenged by a lack of space in the already over planted garden, so this is wonderful. I can barely wait for March to arrive so I can start planting again. By then, I should have more than enough plants that I’ve just got to have to fill all the open areas (and then some).